Even if they stood alone, the stained glass in the cathedral of LEÓN and the Romanesque wall paintings in its Panteón Real would merit a very considerable journey, but there’s much more to the city than this. An attractive provincial capital that welcomes camino pilgrims by the thousand, it also presents itself as a lively university town with one of the best tapas bar scenes in Spain. Handsome old- and new-town areas complement each other, set back from extensive riverside gardens, and, while the city’s major monuments are renowned, León is a fine place simply to spend a relaxed day or two. Large parts of the encircling medieval walls are still intact, and the tangle of narrow streets within is shabby in part, though the ramshackle buildings in faded ochre and rose pink give the casco antiguo a charm all of its own. By day, apart from the crowds around the cathedral and San Isidoro, it’s much quieter in the pretty lanes and squares, though always with the accompanying footfall of arriving camino hikers making their way into town. At night, the old town bursts into life, with the streets thronged with people and the bars packed out. Things really take off during Semana Santa, and for the fiestas of San Juan and San Pedro in the last week of June. The celebrations, concentrated around the Plaza Mayor, get pretty riotous, with an enjoyable blend of medieval pageantry and buffoonery.
Aside from an early Roman presence, León’s history is that of the Reconquest. In 914, as the Christians edged their way south from Asturias, Asturian king Ordoño II transferred his capital from Oviedo to León. Despite being sacked by the dreaded al-Mansur in 996, the new capital rapidly eclipsed the old, and as more and more territory came under the control of León it was divided into new administrative groupings: in 1035, the county of Castile matured into a fully fledged kingdom with its capital at Burgos. For the next two centuries, León and Castile jointly spearheaded the war against the Moors until, by the thirteenth century, Castile had come finally to dominate her mother kingdom. These two centuries were nevertheless the period of León’s greatest power, from which date most of her finest buildings.